Electrification of vehicles in Canadian mines

Trade magazine Electric Autonomy has published a series titled BEV’s in Mining, and while clearly from an industry point of view, the articles provide a useful overview of the transformation being wrought by electrification of the mining industry in Canada.  “Deep secrets: How Canada’s mining sector grabbed the global lead in mining electrification “  (Nov. 2020) introduces the topic of Battery Electric Vehicles and highlights the specific activities of mining majors GlencoreVale and Newmont, as well as Maclean Engineering, a Collingwood, Ontario-based equipment manufacturer.  A related, brief article highlighted the use of Rokion-manufactured trucks at Vale Canada mining sites in Manitoba and Ontario.  “Human capital: How BEVs in underground mining change the working environment for the better” was published in February 2021 – discussing the benefits for operators from less noise and vibration, cleaner air, and less fire risk underground. This healthier environment is linked to greater worker satisfaction and a competitive edge for employers to attract scarce talent.  The article also states that “the ventilation system for an all-electric mine will operate at roughly 50 per cent of the cost of a diesel mine and cut greenhouse emissions per mine by 70 per cent, according to government data. The Canadian government estimates transitioning to electric could save 500 tonnes of CO2 emissions per vehicle, every year.”  

Most recently,  “There’s a skills shortage maintaining electric mining vehicles. One training program is trying to fix that” ( Aug. 25), which describes the new “ Industrial Battery Electric Vehicle Maintenance Course”, associated with Cambrian College’s research-oriented Centre for Smart Mining in Sudbury, and with Maclean Engineering. What the series does not discuss are the other labour market implications – including layoffs – from the automation of vehicles and other operations.

B.C’s Dirty Dozen mines

 SkeenaWild and the BC Mining Law Reform network released the Dirty Dozen 2021    report in May (B.C.’s “Mining Month”), to expose the province’s worst offending mines which risk the health and safety of communities and the environment.  The twelve mines were selected “based on their proven or probable impacts to sensitive environments and species, violation of Indigenous rights, unsafe management of tailings waste and/or water contamination, inadequate reclamation funding, and/or non-compliance with environmental permits.” Included in the 2021 “Dirty Dozen”:  five coal mines owned and operated by Teck Resources, B.C.’s largest mine operator, in the Elk River Valley, which is known to have been leaching  toxic Selenium from their waste rock piles for decades. Another on the list: Copper Mountain mine on the Similkameen River, with a long history of polluting in a watershed that is home to steelhead trout and salmon. The Copper Mountain Mine is planning to raise the height of its tailings dam by 65 per cent to 255 metres – risking catastrophe in the case of a collapse. Another notorious mine included in the 2021 list is the Mount Polley copper and gold mine owned by Imperial Metals Corp., which in 2014 was “the site of the most significant environmental mining disaster in Canadian history, in which a tailings dam collapse released 24 billion litres of tailings and contaminated water into surrounding salmon habitat.”  The report states that the company continues to ignore the recommendations of the Independent Review Panel into the Mount Polley disaster, and the government is failing to follow through on enforcement.

The Dirty Dozen report concludes that “ there is still a gap between the rosy picture the B.C. government and the mining industry are trying to promote and what is actually happening on the ground.”  It refers to recommendations for improvement, including those from the First Nations Energy and Mining Council and from the B.C. Mining Law Reform Network (endorsed by nearly 30 local, provincial and national citizen and community groups, First Nations, academics, and social justice and environmental organizations). Nikki Skuce, co-chair of the BC Mining Law Reform network says: “By permitting these risks and pollution issues to continue, the government is putting the mining industry itself at risk as more and more purchasers around the world shift to socially and environmentally responsible sourcing”.  

A related article “Supplying the green wave” (Corporate Knights , May 3)  describes the organizations working towards more environmentally responsible mining, including Mining Watch Canada and The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA).

How Canada can compete in the growing international battery supply chain

A  new report, Turning Talk into Action: Building Canada’s Battery Supply Chain, summarizes a forum of experts convened in March 2021 by Clean Energy Canada.  The resulting report discusses the existing state of electric vehicle and battery manufacturing in Canada, and makes a series of recommendations for action. Expert participants included the union Unifor, along with industry/employer groups: the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, The Battery Metals Association of Canada, the Delphi Group, Electric Mobility Canada, The Lion Electric Co., Dunsky Energy Consulting, Lithion Recycling, the Mining Association of Canada,  Li-Cycle, E3 Metals, the Transition Accelerator, General Motors Canada, E-One Moli Energy (Canada), Magna International, Propulsion Québec, Blue Solutions Canada, and Polaris Strategy + Insight.

The experts argue that Canada has many advantages which allow it to seize this moment of opportunity and establish itself as a major player in the global battery sector – where the global market for lithium-ion batteries is growing rapidly and expected to exceed $100 billion by 2030. Although 80 per cent of the world’s batteries are currently produced in Japan, South Korea and China, the report sets forth ideas for an industrial strategy  for an integrated North American industry, starting with an Interprovincial Battery Secretariat to bring together various provincial agencies within Canada, and an industry-led, government-supported task force to work with the Secretariat and  deliver advice by the end of 2021. With a unified battery plan in place, Canada would then be able to enter a North American Battery Alliance with the U.S., modelled on the European Battery Alliance, to leverage the existing, highly integrated automotive market and emphasizing a “clean” advantage over Asian suppliers.  Recommendations regarding the materials supply chain also emphasize sustainability and transparency in mining. Although there is already government funding available through an $8-billion NetZero Accelerator Fund, the report states that “the federal government must create a $15 billion battery supply chain fund dedicated to addressing challenges and investing in strategic projects along the Canadian value chain. The fund must be carved out specifically for the batteries versus being another stream within the Strategic Innovation Fund.”  Finally, noting that Canada already has technological and R&D expertise in batteries, the report calls for “ a government-funded, industry-led Centre of Excellence focused on commercializing advanced battery technology and manufacturing R&D. The centre would cluster university researchers, mining companies, battery manufacturers, and auto OEMs into one hub to support testing, demonstration, and the commercialization of new technologies.” Recycling would also be one of the areas included.

 The report is summarized in this Clean Energy Canada press release .  

Calls for sustainable and responsible mining for the clean energy transition

An important Special Report by the International Energy Association was released in May: The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions. Reflecting a mainstream view of the importance of the raw materials for clean technologies such as electric vehicles and energy storage, the IEA provides “ a wealth of detail on mineral demand prospects under different technology and policy assumptions” , and discusses the various countries which offer supply – including Canada. The main discussion is of policies regarding supply chains, especially concerning responsible and sustainable mining, concluding with six key recommendations, including co-ordination of the many international frameworks and initiatives in the area. The report briefly recognizes the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) protocols as internationally significant, and as one of the first to require on-site verification of its standards. The Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative was established in 2004, requiring member companies to “demonstrate leadership by reporting and independently verifying their performance in key environmental and social areas such as aboriginal and community engagement, biodiversity conservation, climate change, tailings management.”    

On May 5, the Mining Association of Canada updated one of its TSM protocols with the release a new Climate Change Protocol,  a major update to its 2013  Energy Use and GHG Emissions Management Protocol.  It is designed “to minimize the mining sector’s carbon footprint, while enhancing climate change disclosure and strengthening the sector’s ability to adapt to climate change.”  The Protocol is accompanied by a new Guide on Climate Change Adaptation for the Mining Sector,  intended for mine owners in Canada, but with global application. The Guide includes case studies of such mines as the Glencore Nickel mine in Sudbury, the notorious Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories, and the Suncor Millennium tailings pond remediation at its oil sands mine in Alberta.  The membership of MAC is a who’s who of Canadian mining and oil sands companies /  – including well-known companies such as ArcelorMittal, Barrick Gold, Glencore, Kinross,  Rio Tinto, Suncor, and Syncrude.  Other documentation, including other Frameworks and progress reports, are compiled at a dedicated Climate Change Initiatives and Innovations in the Mining Industry website.  

The demand for lithium, cobalt, nickel, and the other rare earth minerals needed for technological innovation has been embraced, not only by the mining industry, but in policy discussions –  recently, by Clean Energy Canada in its March 2021 report, The Next Frontier. The federal  ministry of Natural Resources Canada is also supportive, maintaining a Green Mining Innovation Initiative through CanmetMINING , and the government joined the U.S.-led Energy Resource Governance Initiative (ERGI) in 2019 to promote “secure and resilient supply chains for critical energy minerals.”

Alternative points of view have been pointing out the dangers inherent in the new “gold rush” mentality, since at least 2016 when Amnesty International released its 2016 expose of the use of child labour in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most recently, in February 2021, Amnesty released Powering Change: Principles for Businesses and Governments in the Battery Value Chain, which sets out specific principles that governments and businesses should follow to avoid human rights abuses and environmental harm.  Other examples: MiningWatch Canada has posted their April 2021 webinar Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?,   which states: “The mining sector is working hard to take advantage of the climate crisis, painting mining as “green” because it supplies materials needed to support the “green” energy transition. But unless demand for both energy and materials are curtailed, environmental destruction and social conflicts will also continue to grow.”  MiningWatch Canada published  Turning Down the Heat: Can We Mine Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis? in 2020, reporting on a 2019 international conference which focused on the experience of frontline communities. Internationally, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre maintains a Transition Minerals tracker, with ongoing data and reports concerning human and labour rights in the mining of  “transition minerals”, and also compiles links to recent reports and articles. Two recent reports in 2021:  Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium, and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries (March 2021, Earthworks) and  A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals  from the U.K. organization War on Want.  

A vision and action plan to make Canada’s heavy industries our low-carbon “Next Frontier”

Clean Energy Canada’s new report, The Next Frontier, sees Canada’s heavy industries—including steel, mining, cement, and wood—as the “Next Frontier” – already employing more Canadians than the oil and gas industry (300,000 in heavy industry compared to 237,000 in oil and gas), and poised to increase exports to the rest of the world. The report contends that Canadian heavy industries have a competitive advantage over their global peers, largely because our electricity sector is now 83% emissions-free. And according to the introduction, the time is now: “The production of certain metals and minerals could increase by up to nearly 500% over the next three decades to meet growing demand for clean technologies, according to the World Bank Group. Global steel demand, meanwhile, is projected to increase by up to 55%; Canadian steel and aluminum are among the world’s cleanest and could be even cleaner. Mining companies such as Vancouver based Teck are also global leaders in copper production, while Canada is the world’s fifth-largest nickel producer—both key metals for electrifying transportation. And Albertan companies like E3 Metals and Summit Nanotech are finding ways to recover lithium from oilsands wastewater.”

The Next Frontier , released on March 24, calls for an action plan to allow Canada to capitalize on the convergence of global market trends and climate imperatives.  The report Canadian strengths and provides more examples of existing companies. It concludes with an action plan to move towards this lower-carbon economy, including recommendations: to expand domestic markets through clean procurement policies for government infrastructure materials; to identify strategic directions such as “establishing a self-sufficient battery and critical minerals supply chain to build and grow domestic battery and clean technology manufacturing”;  investment and research and development in well-positioned industries; and establishing standards which will support a “Clean Canada” brand to the world.  

And regarding our largest and most important trading partner, the U.S., the bottom line message is: “If we want Biden’s “Buy American” approach to include an asterisk beside Canada, we must adapt to what this new administration wants more of (clean energy and low-carbon goods) and what it wants less of (fossil fuels and emissions-intensive products).”